Former aerospace worker John Woods started at the bottom when he decided to become an artist. The bottom of MacArthur Park Lake, that is.
When Los Angeles officials partially drained the landmark lake in 1973 and then pumped it dry five years later for park remodeling projects, Woods emptied its muddy bed of nearly a century's worth of history.
Poking through the silt--hiring local panhandlers to help--Woods found treasure: hundreds of watches lost overboard by row-boaters, thousands of corroded coins and trolley tokens, rusty tools, toys of every description, countless encrusted guns and knives.
"You could see this wasn't just junk somebody had thrown into the lake," said Woods, now a wiry 66-year-old. "These were things that had been important to people--things they cared about."
The retired aeronautical engineer spent the next dozen years patiently cleaning and polishing his trove at a cluttered secondhand store he operated near the park. Then he began gluing the pieces together.
The result may be the most unusual time capsule Los Angeles has ever seen--whimsical, free-form sculptures that trace one of the city's grandest neighborhoods through a golden era and a glaring decline.
There's "Keys to the City," a collage of more than 1,000 keys dropped in the lake, some bearing the names of what once were Los Angeles' fanciest hotels or the marks of car makes such as Hudson and DeSoto.
There's "Things Used to Go Better with Coke," a collection of some of the 5,000 Coca-Cola bottles he pulled from the silt. Dates and bottling plant codes stamped in the glass allow the piece to trace migration to Los Angeles between 1915 and 1970.
There's "MacArthur Park Lost & Found," a fanciful statue made of things such as antique eyeglasses, old-style false teeth, Depression-era children's toys--and more contemporary brass knuckles, cheap pistols and rusty bullets.
Woods is an urban anthropologist, suggests film editor Anne Stein, who learned of his work after City Councilman Mike Hernandez arranged to have several pieces briefly shown at City Hall three years ago.
"His work is magical," says art curator Ginny Brush, who views Woods as a sociologist and archeologist as much as an artist. "It's in the scope of the Watts Tower."
It was Brush who earlier this year encouraged Woods to haul his artwork out of a San Gabriel Valley storage bin for display at a contemporary arts exhibition in Santa Barbara. He had left it behind after the 1992 riots convinced him to shut his tiny shop and return to his native Iowa.
Los Angeles art dealer Kim Kralj spotted the work in Santa Barbara. This month she invited Woods to display some of it publicly for the first time at her Kralj Space gallery at 660 N. Larchmont Blvd. He was happy to comply.
Until now he has never tried to sell his work, Woods is quick to explain. But after moving to Iowa, he become the single parent of his two children. These days, 7-year-old Elizabeth and 12-year-old Timothy are staying with him at a Sunset Boulevard motel.
Kralj said gallery visitors have been stunned by what Woods dredged up. "He's given objects a life beyond what they originally had," she said. "His work is very powerful and real."
Woods admits to discovering the treasure by accident 22 years ago after officials partially drained the lake. A transient showed up at Woods' shop carrying a bucket of muddy items plucked from the muck.
"He sold it to me for $2 so he could catch a bus. There was an old bell, a miniature Coke bottle, a rusted gun"--things Woods figured he could sell at his shop or at flea markets.
Soon, Woods was poking around the waist-deep mud himself, and hiring street people to help him--sometimes paying them by treating 20 of them at a time to dinner at a 7th Street restaurant.
"I was astounded at the stuff we were finding," Woods recalled. Sometimes he didn't learn exactly what he had until objects were scrubbed two or three times. It was then he would discover he was holding a rare, 60-year-old auto license tab or something like the tin "Los Angeles County Hospital Patient Card" made out in 1943 to someone named Harry Kelso Jr.
Woods said officials refused to let him hunt for more artifacts in 1991 when the lake was emptied to make way for subway construction. No matter: he still has thousands of items in storage that he hopes to turn into sculpture when he raises enough money to rent work space.
First, though, he wants to get himself and his children out of the motel--which lacks either a stove or a refrigerator.
"I think the time has come to add a little dignity to our lives," Woods said. "The Lord has kept me humble for a long time."